26 September 2017

Killing Animals in the Age of Empathy. Frans de Waal, a leading primatologist explains why he eats animals

3 Oct : added subtitles to video fragment

Frans de Waal explains why he eats meat to Janine Abbring
on Dutch television, August 20th 2017
On 20th August 2017 primatologist and author of many popular books on animal behavior Frans de Waal admitted in a 3 hour interview in the Dutch television program Zomergasten that he did eat meat. He admitted it after being confronted with this fact by the interviewer Janine Abbring. He defended it with the argument that eating meat is part of what he called 'the natural life cycle'. At the same time he condemned the meat industry for not being animal friendly [5]. He said that we should reduce meat consumption with perhaps 50%, or produce artificial meat from plants, and that we should treat the animals we do eat better. Further he said that one third or a quarter of the public is ready for paying attention to how animals are treated before they are eaten. The meat industry is very recalcitrant and is paying attention to profits only, he added. If you would visit places where meat is produced as often as you visit a zoo, you would be worried. However, those places are no-go areas. We must break that open. We must make people more aware of how chickens are treated before they end up on our plate, he said.

Janine Abbring interviews Frans de waal
28 sec video fragment with English subtitles

I find his meat eating habit completely unexpected and his subsequent defense very disappointing. First, he keeps eating meat in full knowledge of the deplorable situation of the millions and billions of animals in the meat industry. How can this be? If you know something is bad, a morally acting person stops doing it, or at least does everything in his power to stop doing it. His remarks about people being ready to eat less meat contributes even more to the confusion.

Second, he gives a naive and since long discredited defense for his meat eating habit. He calls it 'the natural cycle of life': in nature animals eat animals, we are being consumed by worms after our death, etc. But this clearly is a form of the naturalistic fallacy. Nobody denies the existence of carnivores in nature, but we cannot derive moral values from that fact. The argument is equivalent with: "I eat meat because lions eat meat". He could have easily taken his beloved chimps as a moral example, because they are omnivores just like us and are evolutionary closer to us than lions. Chimps and bonobo's do eat meat occasionally [1],[4]. But formulated as "I eat meat because chimps do" makes the naivety of the whole idea perfectly clear, and so is the whole 'natural cycle of life' idea [2]. It amounts to "nature red in tooth and claw", the very principle he  vigorously opposed in his book The Age of Empathy [6].

There is another problem with his argument. If meat eating is natural, then reducing meat consumption is unnatural. How does he derive reducing meat consumption from 'the natural life cycle'?. 

The most intellectually disturbing fact is that he knows the "is/ought distinction" in his book The Bonobo and the Atheist [3]. He knows that the naturalistic fallacy is a fallacy or at least that it is very problematic. 

The age of empathy?
Nature's Lessons for a kinder society?

Third, on Dutch television he told he eats animals, but in his books De Waal never told his readers he does so. Now, one could argue that it is a personal matter and not our business at all. However, his books are not neutral scientific reports about animal behavior. On the contrary. He explains we live in the age of empathy and teaches us 'Lessons For A Kinder Society'. In The Age of Empathy he writes about himself: "Empathy is my bread and butter", describes himself as an animal lover: "I love and respect animals", and: "In my own research, I avoid causing pain or deprivation". In an interview [5] he tells us: "I myself have never done any invasive studies in chimps". In an essay in Nature he writes: "people systematically underestimate animals" [7].

Apart form his personal views, his science was never disinterested academic research to be published in scientific journals only. He broke old scientific taboos by attributing traditionally human qualities to animals, such as "empathy", "sympathy", "altruism", "consolation", "fairness", "conflict resolution", "peacemaking" and by giving names to individual animals; he is against emphasis on the nasty side of nature, selfishness, aggression, conflict, competition. Please note all these topics have to do with the social life and morality. Morality shows up in book titles: Good Natured. The Origins of Right and Wrong' and: Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved. In other words: all his books are in fact about morality. And that is not morality in a purely descriptive way. He wants us to learn from animals. Not just anything, but moral lessons.

So, knowing his personal and scientific background, the kind of books he writes, the message he wants to convey to the world, the way he is portrayed by scientific journals (for example by PNAS), it is deeply disturbing that he admits eating animals. How can he be serious about a kinder society? Doesn't he include the animals he eats in his society? He practices a double standard: Chimp Haven, and Hell for the animals he eats. He knows the meat industry is a hell for animals, he blames the meat industry for not being friendly to animals, but he takes no responsibility for his own actions. His critique of the meat industry is not serious. What did he learn from his lifelong study of animals? He preaches empathy and sympathy for animals, but he practices killing animals. If anybody in the world is expected to be a vegetarian, it would be Frans de Waal. Just like Jane Goodall he should be on the list of famous vegetarians. TIME magazine honored him with the title "the 100 men and women whose power, talent or moral example is transforming the world". Sadly, he is not a moral example. He could be a very influential moral example when he practices what he preaches: admit that his defense of eating meat was wrong and become a vegetarian. He should  condemn the meat industry in certain terms based on knowledge and facts and take action accordingly. Further, as a scientist he should encourage the study of the natural behavior of the animals we eat, including empathy, just as he studied apes, monkeys and elephants. I am suggesting this title for his next book: "Confessions of a leading primatologist".


  1. "They're far more carnivorous than was once thought. They eat over thirty-five different species of vertebrates." p.137 Our Inner Ape, paperback 2005.
  2. In fact any claim that meat is a necessary component in the human diet is refuted by millions of vegetarians world-wide. But this is a different subject.
  3. The Bonobo and the Atheist, chapter 6, paragraph 'When "Is" meets "Ought", page 162-165. It is however a somewhat muddled discussion. It should not be confused with the claim that many of the building blocks of morality have an evolutionary origin which is a scientifically sound claim. The expression "morality grounded in biology" is confusing, because it suggest a morality is founded on biology, which is impossible.
  4. I wonder whether Frans de Waal gives his chimpanzees in the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta occasionally meat. If not, that is a perfect proof that our closest relatives don't need meat to live a healthy life. [added 12 Oct 2017]
  5. He made similar remarks at PLOS blogs: "But I do feel there is a general trend in society, in the public, and scientists need to pay attention to that, of taking animals more seriously than we used to. And this may also have an effect in the agricultural industry, on how we treat agricultural animals, which is a much larger number than research animals, actually, and so it may have effects everywhere, effects on the ethics of how we treat animals, and this will probably also affect the biomedical community." Should Chimpanzees Have Moral Standing? An Interview with Frans de Waal, March 27, 2012. (Again not mentioning he eats meat!) [added: 12 Oct 2017]
  6. Added 13 Oct 17. See also: Survival of the Kindest: In his new book, The Age of Empathy, Frans de Waal outlines an alternative to “Nature, red in tooth and claw.”, Seed Magazine, originally published September 24, 2009 
  7. Frans de Waal (2009) Darwin's last laugh, Nature 9 July 2009. Full quote: "The opposite approach of anthropodenial – the a priori rejection of continuity between humans and other animals – has led people to systematically underestimate animals". [added 17 Oct 17]

A previous version of this blog appeared in Dutch on 12 September 2017.


Theo S said...

Beste Gert,

er bestaan steeds uitstervende soorten. Ook al in de blogwereld, en die 'digitale wereld' is zo snel, dat die de 'lief gekozen variant van meteen in het begin al meedoen van jou' soms zelf zo maar sterft of 'zieltogend' wordt. Zo, precies de vragen van jou over onze Frans uit Brabant samengevat, bijna heb ik ze zo aan een wetenschapsjournalist van een landelijke krant voorgelegd. Hot, zoals het geluid van de bladblazer, ergens in de buurt van Soest en Baarn, maar vooral in Drenthe, vlak bij een restaurant/hotel dat de de de de 'stilte' verkoopt!! Ik verwacht geen antwoord op de 'empathie-vraag' van een primatoloog die zijns zeggen bij "Zomergasten" het begrip "empathie" pas in de jaren 'negentig' leerde kennen.

Mijn hemel! En erger, ik kan die Jan, die ooit Lachende Theoloog niet meer bereiken, met wie jij toch ooit, sinds 2007, een min of meer zinnige discussies voerde, en aan wie ik het 'concept' empathie toch ooit heb uitgelegd zoals iets waar ik dan toch wel een beetje aan 'geloof' als 70 plusser en klusser voor 'de toekomst zonder uitzicht op de mooiste beloften', als een 'uiteraard los gezongen adept van Freud, was het Rogers die het verwoordde : proberen te begrijpen wat de ander wil zeggen, en dat in die eigen taal weer proberen terug te geven. Ik voel de 'baas' in die taal!

Heb jij nog contact met Jan, laat het me weten. Dwaze wetenschap, wie weet sektarisch gedoe? Jan in een tweet-groep, niet meer in gesprek met die 'merel' schilder, met plaatjes daaromtrent?

Heb jij, Gert, een aanwijzing of tip over Jans 'nieuwste evolutie', waar hij mij begrijpelijkerwijs nooit over zal willen horen: wat stoorde je nou aan de stem van een Gert? Meer of minder overtuiging, méér of minder 'overtuiging'?

Eén 'overeenkomst' "MOETEN" we delen: het gelaat van André Kuipers,na een half jaar, niet eens naar de maan, maar de terugkeer: dat is 'empathie', ook al ...

gert korthof said...

Hoi Theo S:
ik heb geen contact met Jan R en ik lees zijn blog niet meer sinds hij atheisten immoreel genoemd heeft op zijn blog. Dat was een zodanig dieptepunt in de discussie dat verder volgen geen zin meer had. Ik heb even genoeg van gelovigen en besteed voorlopig geen tijd aan het weerleggen van gelovigen en hun geloof. Ik houd me met nuttiger zaken bezig.

Frans de Waal:

Empathie-profeet en grote dierenvriend Frans de Waal heeft de wereld 30 jaar lang voor de gek gehouden: "ethologen houden van hun dieren"! en "Trump heeft geen empathie"!.

Frans de Waal houdt van dieren en eet vlees! Dat gaat niet samen.

Frans de Waal onderzoekt empathie, schrijft over empathie en praat over empathie. Maar dat wil niet zeggen dat hijzelf empathisch is. Niet dus.

Theo, vertel het aub voor aan iedere wetenschapsjournalist van een landelijke krant: Trouw, nrc, Volkskrant, Telegraaf, AD, ND en verwijs ze door naar dit blog.

Anonymous said...

Beste Gert,

dank voor je 'deels' zeer empathische reactie, in de zin van die Rogers, wiens 'definitie' van dat begrip 'empathie' ik al hoorde in 1967 en die diepe indruk op me maakte op mij als twintigjarige, die 'definitie'. Het klonk als 'wet' van 'wetenschap'. Het veronderstelde 'gemiddelde' taalvermogen daarbij van de 'therapeut' werd meteen over het hoofd gezien. Want woorden. En toch: nog steeds de beste 'definitie', ook als we kijken via de 'ogen van de 'nachtzwaluw'. Als bioloog kon/ kun je erom lachen toen en nu, om die zeer menselijk afgestemde definitie- want in taal teruggegeven.

(Deels en zeer in de eerste zin bijt elkaar in taal ook nog als ze in één zin worden gebruikt, zei de Neerlandicus in mij met alle 'aanmatiging'ook nog. Maar goed. Dichters en andere fantasten hebben wel door dat het uiteindelijk woorden zijn, die betekenissen hebben, die ook 'wetenschappers' 'zomaar' hanteren als ze de 'merel' op een zondagmorgen op een blog van je ooit zagen, - het let-it-be naast die uitermate grote 'behoefte' aan nauwkeurigheid!)

(Die 'nauwkeurigheid' staat voor de onverwoestbare grootheid van dat 'onderbuikgevoel' van 500 vóór de Here: waar, schoon en mooi, en met Ernst Happel in Rotterdam: de rest is geloel: kijk en blijf kijken naar 'onze André' in de ruimte.)

Een pragmatische filosofie, Gert. Ik wil niet lezen dat ze in Beieren met de Oktoberfesten zomaar een half miljoen 'halve haantjes' hebben verorberd, terwijl ik de 'smaak' van die halve haantjes van mijn moeder meteen in de 'bek' krijg.

Bij de dichterlijke types roept het 'halve' meer op dan 'smaak'. Empathie, dus heel iets anders dan sympathie, ik heb het al ooit eerder gezegd op je blog: maar ja goed, de sympathie, die ik met de even grote wijsheid van jou als van hem, ligt nu wel even bij jou: waarom is die 'godsvruchtige' man in de éénentwintigste eeuw vrijwel 'onbereikbaar' geworden?

Alles in mij gaat steeds op 'alert'stand, als het niet goed gaat met de 'wereld', - in dit geval tussen jou en Riemersma - en dat is voortdurend zo. Bij jou waarschijnlijk toch niet anders: ik ben net 70 geworden en hoe symbolisch ook: je kunt noch via empathie noch via sympathie nog begrijpen dat er een monster in je spiegel staat te gapen (of wie weet tegenwoordig via de smartphone): dialoog met het gezicht van dat 'bescheten' gelaat van die André, die uiteraard verwees naar dat 'landen' in de 'woestijn'. Voor 'apengedrag' kun je naar vele apen en mensen kijken. En wat was nou de oorsprong?

Enzovoort, Gert, qua smaak een half haantje uit Beieren je toegewenst! Qua 'geweten' moet je via de 'empathie' eigenlijk helemaal terug naar de 'definitie' van Rogers, een afscheider van Freud zelf, maar met wie we toch nog een 'definitie' die we in de 'omgang' met 'dieren' wie weet al aan het hanteren zijn via een onlangs verschenen proefschrift: de kruisspin wil wat insecten vangen en wie ben ik om dat te verstoren in de lente, sorry herfst...

Anonymous said...

may be this so called Veneer Theory, the popular idea that our morality is just a thin veneer over a cauldron of nasty, animal tendencies, an idea de Waal has been criticizing for many years and passim, isn't that wrong after all. At least not as far as his own morality goes. Indeed, it isn't even thick enough to cover his own animal tendencies.

Anonymous said...

it = his own veneer, and or his own morality (both!)

gert korthof said...

Good remark!
And what about this: Homo homini lupus = "man is wolf to man" or even better: "man is wolf to other animals" (that is animals he kills and eats, no mercy or compassion).

Anonymous said...


may be an even better remark would be:

Frans' veneer obviously isn't thick enough to cover his own hypocrisy.

because this refers directly to your main criticism

By the way, this also would refute one of his own main premisses, or call it axioms if you like, because being hypocritical is a difference in kind, not in degree.

In Search of Humanism Among the Primates? He's got it wrong on both ends and all along:

" ... the moral qualities are advanced either directly or indirectly much more through the efforts of habit, by our reasoning powers, by instruction, by religion, etc., than through natural selection.” Ch. Darwin.

(Let alone sexual selection!)

gert korthof said...

I agree with your "Frans' veneer obviously isn't thick enough to cover his own hypocrisy."
If Hypocrisy is defined as "a false appearance of virtue or goodness, while concealing real character or inclinations, especially with respect to religious and moral beliefs."

However, viewed from a biological and evolutionary perspective, it would not make sense when a predator has empathy for its prey. Such a predator could not kill its prey. If we view the animals we eat as prey, that would explain why most humans feel no empathy for cows, pigs, sheep, chickens. That would explain why most humans can feel empathy for a lot of other members of their species, including some non-human non-food animals such as dogs and cats, and at the same time have no problem with eating those animals we exclusively raise for their meat. So non-vegetarians place cows and pigs in a different 'empathy category' than their dogs and cats.

Anonymous said...


a lot of animals do prey, especially predators!

and so do we.

but we are the only species able to be hypocritical about it. That's the difference.

so we can feed our pets ('non-food animals') proteins of other animals ('food-animals'), like f.e. in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q3C1829orBs

gert korthof said...

I agree with "but we are the only species able to be hypocritical about it. "!

Very sad that precisely Frans de Waal, who is the perfect person in all respects to be a vegetarian and to be a protagonist of vegetarianism, admits and defends meat eating. Extremely sad that he is hypocritical about it.

Did you read his books or watched his lectures on youtube before his 'admission'? Again sadly, many people used Frans de Waal to support the vegetarian case (not knowing his meat eating habit).

Anonymous said...

yes said indeed

but may be you can turn his hypocrisy 'around':

apparently Frans de Waal couldn't convince himself enough of his own science.
not very much unlike, say, Einstein who'd think he could defy gravity.

Well, I think I've read enough of his stuff to be qualified to ask these questions.
And so far, you seem to agree. Thanks for answering.

gert korthof said...

I asked you about reading his books because having read all of his books in the past years I concluded automatically that when all of his studies seem to be aimed at upgrading our views about animals, that de Waal acts accordingly, that he is a morally acting person, an empathic person, has empathy and sympathy for all animals and defends the interests of all animals including animals in the wild, in agriculture, in zoos, in medical research, etc.
By my writings in the past (blogs and reviews) I implicitly supported him. In that case my disappointment could not be greater. That's my personal experience.

Contrast him with Jane Goodall who studied chimps in the wild, now works extensively on conservation and animal welfare issues. She is really a moral acting person who translates her knowledge into moral action.

My worries are that many people, including academics, who don't know about his meat eating habits, or don't care about it, still invite him for talks at universities all around the world because they wrongly think he is a morally good person. People like Lone Frank interview him with the greatest admiration. Wrong! That's why I blogged about him. He does not deserve all the praise. There are other students of animal behavior such as Sir Patrick Bateson (1938–2017), who deserve more recognition, but who are not so well known by the larger public because they don't publish that many popular books on popular and sexy topics, and do not engage in so much self-promotion as de Waal does.

Anonymous said...

speaking about science..

the clip of de Waal's 'experiment' on 'inequity aversion' that went viral, and became kind of his trademark, justs confirms what he was looking for. No alternative hypotheses ruled out, no control conditions.

his reference to the occupy movement at the end, was only meant to please people - and, indeed the audience is cheering, yet watching what may stand as a paramount example of bad science.

It's not even bad science. It's entertainment.

BTW you simply can't defy gravity- no matter how hard you try. That's why they call this kinda stuff science.

gert korthof said...

You wrote "de Waal's 'experiment' on 'inequity aversion' that went viral...". However this is part of a scientific experiment published in Nature: Monkeys reject unequal pay, Nature 425, 297-299 (18 September 2003). The methodology and conclusions have been criticized in the same journal by scientists and answered by de Waal et al. in the same journal. That's how science works. I am not saying that all his scientific work is fraud or worthless because he behaves immoral in private. His scientific work could still be worthwhile to study.

Anonymous said...

I know

but de Waal never answered Bolhuis and Wynne's criticism that he never did this simple control test.

Of course, absence of evidence doesn't imply evidence of evidence, so may be these animals show some signs of 'inequity aversion'.

But I was arguing that de Waal is promoting the wrong image of science with this kind of stuff. This is not science.

Besides, his comparison with the occupy movement gives away his ideological stance, though he meant it jokingly.

gert korthof said...

If he he did not do the control that is a fundamental error, but Nature is also to blame for that, it is a failure of peer review. And he certainly seeks publicity. However, the unequal pay experiment is interesting, it should be improved upon and repeated in more species.

Yesterday I discovered an opinion article of Frans de Waal in a popular-science magazine Psychologie Magazine (2013). It is horrible: due to lack of good arguments he attacks vegans (how low can you go?) and at the same time he claims to be in favor of cultured meat because that doesn't hurt animals! I have to write about that.